One day in the London of the 1930s a short, ruddy-faced young man carrying a thick blackthorn staff was to be seen talking earnestly into the mouth of a red pillar box in the street. Passers-by who gathered to see what it was all about could hear him say: “Don’t worry, my little lad, we’ll soon get you out of here.” He then turned to the growing crowd of onlookers: “It’s disgraceful: the postman has trapped this little boy inside.” By the time one of the onlookers had summoned the fire brigade the red-faced man had slipped away.
His name was JB Morton, better known to readers of the Daily Express by his pseudonym of Beachcomber, whose satirical column appeared in the paper and was to do so for more than 50 years.
Yet today none of his work, a small portion of which was reprinted in several books, remains in print. Sacked by the Express, he died in 1974, aged 85, leaving no heirs. Following his death, his little house in Ferring, a suburb of Worthing, was demolished and all his papers destroyed.
Beachcomber’s influence on journalism was profound. He was the first man to write a column that parodied the style of the newspaper it appeared in. It was a formula copied by the Irishman Myles na Gopaleen (aka Flann O’Brien), Michael Frayn in the Guardian and Michael Wharton (Peter Simple) of the Daily Telegraph.
I can vouch for the fact that at least three members of the old Private Eye gang – myself, Willie Rushton and Barry Fantoni – were devoted Beachcomber fans. Not surprisingly we relished in particular his many legal marathons, presided over by Mr Justice Cocklecarrot, who lived on in the pages of the Eye.
Morton, the son of a playwright, had been freelancing in Fleet Street when war broke out in 1914. He fought in the trenches but was invalided out suffering from shell shock. Like many survivors of the 1914-18 slaughter, he reacted with wild behaviour, drinking and practical jokes in the years that followed. But in 1927 he married his Irish wife and settled on the south coast, much to the distress of his drinking companions who saw little of him thereafter.
He had joined the Catholic Church in 1922 as a result of the influence of Hilaire Belloc, whose most loyal disciple – almost adopted son – he became.
He idolised Belloc, writing a notable memoir of his mentor after his death. In addition to Catholicism, Morton copied Belloc’s lifestyle, his love of Sussex, France and long walking tours. Like Belloc, he wrote works of French history. He also published a short life of St Thérèse of Lisieux, a passage from which was read by Fr William Burridge at his Requiem in Westminster Cathedral: “The deliberate attempt to live as though man were sufficient in himself has brought chaos and a materialistic creed which uses that chaos to rob man of his dignity and his true purpose.”
Sharing Belloc’s pessimism about the modern world, he never used a typewriter or learned to ride a bicycle, let alone drive a car. His Beachcomber copy, neatly handwritten on blue Basildon Bond sheets, was sent to the Express by train.
Unsatisfied by this one, Morton took refuge in a world of his own, inhabited by his memorable characters – the mad scientist Dr Strabismus “Whom God preserve” of Utrecht, suave con man Capt Foulenough, snobby socialite Lady Cabstanleigh and many more. Interspersed with their exploits he scattered little jokes and poems, such as his parody of AA Milne:
NOW WE ARE SICK
Has fallen down stairs
One day soon, I hope, an enterprising publisher will make Beachcomber’s wonderful material available again for the benefit of all those millennials who have probably never heard of him. Bring it on!
Richard Ingrams is a former editor of Private Eye and the Oldie